In its own low key and enigmatic ways, Certified Copy is rather profound – a film that draws the audience in not through plot, but through character, theme, and most surprisingly, intellectual debate. It’s an examination of ideals and beliefs, of how perception shapes reality. That it ultimately provides no explanation and takes no particular side is not the point; the intention is to arouse curiosity, to get you to consider the possibilities and come to your own conclusions. In an age when films spell everything out, here is a rare gem that encourages deliberation and espouses more than one point of view. It’s not a matter of the film being unclear; it’s a matter of finding your own clarity. What you take from it depends entirely on what you bring into it. There is no one answer.
It does this within a very reliable cinematic framework. It’s is by no means a romantic comedy, although it does feature a man and a woman in a relationship, and as time progresses, they will flirt, argue, and philosophize. The man is English art historian James Miller (renowned baritone William Shimell in his film debut), who’s in Tuscany promoting the Italian translation of his newest book, Certified Copy. In it, he argues that authenticity is irrelevant when it comes to works of art; a reproduction can be considered an original because it was still made by hand, and an original can be considered a reproduction because it’s not a subject, but merely a depiction of a subject. Is there any such thing as an “original,” in art or in life? People are considered individuals, and yet they could not exist without the genetic copying of their parents’ DNA. So how individual is anyone really?
The woman, whose name is never revealed (Juliette Binoche), is a French antiques dealer living in Italy with her son (Adrian Moore). She’s intrigued by Miller’s book – and by Miller himself – and goes to his reading, where she provides his translator with the address of her shop. He arrives there the next day. She takes him on a drive, one in which their personalities and beliefs are established. The woman has a sister, who isn’t seen but is due to receive a signed copy of Miller’s book; while she believes her sister’s husband is lazy and simple-minded, Miller believes the husband is a testament to humanity’s reason for being, which is to take pleasure in life. When the woman complains about her son’s mischievous and indulgent tendencies, Miller reminds her that the reason we love children so much is because they live simply and joyfully. But she makes a good point: That sense of contentment and security is made possible only through an adult, who’s ultimately forced to pick up the slack.
After visiting a local museum, they stop in a café – and this is where the film becomes one of the most intriguing mysteries of recent memory. Miller steps outside to take a phone call. The woman strikes up a conversation with the café’s owner, and doesn’t correct her when she assumes that the two are husband and wife. When Miller returns, the language they speak freely shifts back and forth between English and French, and for the rest of the day, the two will behave as if they are actually married. They will visit various artistic destinations and disagree over a piece, namely what the artist was trying to say. More importantly, they will argue about their son and the state of their marriage, which, despite having lasted fifteen years, has deteriorated due to conflicting personalities and polarizing viewpoints.
Now, this is where it gets interesting. Are we witnessing an original relationship, or merely a copy of an original relationship? How can it be an original when marital behaviors are modeled after the people we’ve been in contact with, such as family and friends? How can it be a copy when they fight in the most intimate of ways, as if they have known each other for years? For all we know, they only met at the reading, and Miller and the woman are taking on these roles in order to state their own personal philosophies. Then again, perhaps they have been married the entire time, and the meeting at the antique shop is a desperate attempt at trying to reconnect.
What we see from Miller and the woman are two people who have very legitimate reasons for their beliefs and behaviors. The real issue is that they’re right-fighters; neither one is willing to see or understand where the other is coming from, and they will continuously fight to have the last word. I believe that, although Certified Copy provides no resolution, it does send a message: Regardless of how reality is perceived, regardless of what is original and what is copied, we each have a valid opinion, and they all deserve to be shared, analyzed, and discussed. If you’re to see this movie, keep in mind that writer/director Abbas Kiarostami is actively trying to involve you in a dialogue – and he will not finish it for you. If you prefer concrete narratives that take only one side of an issue, if you require the resolution of an argument, see something else.